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FEATURE: Rise in Japan's unmanned rail stations creating concerns

Amid a declining population, an increasing number of stations on Japan’s local train lines are switching to unmanned operations as railway companies target the bottom line amid decreasing passenger numbers.

The trend is evident even among the nation’s biggest operators, with nearly 60 percent of the 4,368 stations operated by the six Japan Railways Group passenger companies now running without staff.

However, unmanned stations bring with them their own set of concerns, not least compromises in convenience and safety.

Photo taken on Aug. 14, 2023, shows passengers at Ozai Station, which has been unmanned since July, in Oita. (Kyodo)

One local government official in his 40s recalled being left bewildered by the lack of information at Ozai Station in the southwestern Japan city of Oita earlier this month after Typhoon Khanun had rolled through Japan’s southwestern Kyushu region, forcing cancelations and disruption to train services.

There were few remote announcements to inform passengers of the situation at the station, which went unmanned July 1, he said.

The inconveniences extend beyond emergencies or platform usage. One third-year high schooler said she finds it “annoying” that she is unable to renew her commuter pass through an attendant now that the ticket counter has closed.

The decision to remove staff from the station came despite it serving as a stop for express trains in the morning and evening rush hour, and its proximity to a new residential development.

The ticket counter at JR Ozai Station, which has been closed since July 2023 at the unmanned station in Oita, is pictured on Aug. 14. (Kyodo)


Photo taken on Aug. 14, 2023, shows machines installed at JR Ozai station, which has been unmanned since July, in Oita. (Kyodo)

In fiscal 2021, Ozai Station saw an average of 1,789 passengers a day, making it one of the busiest stations across Kyushu Railway Co.’s entire network.

Even so, the company said its usage pattern justified its switch to unmanned status.

On JR Kyushu routes alone, 338 stations — 59 percent — are now unmanned. The pace has surged since 2015, when the firm decided to become a listed company and set its sights on improving revenues.

Other regional companies have even higher rates, with the state-supported Hokkaido Railway Co. and Shikoku Railway Co. respectively running 71 percent and 81 percent of their stations without staff present.

Conversely, East Japan Railway Co., which manages stations in many concentrated urban areas such as Tokyo, has the lowest rate at 47 percent.

Unmanned stations have also become the subject of legal disputes. Since 2020, wheelchair users and other parties have filed numerous lawsuits with the Oita District Court, claiming their constitutionally protected right to freedom of movement is infringed.

Photo taken on Aug. 14, 2023, shows JR Ozai Station, which has been unmanned since July, in Oita. (Kyodo)

Some plaintiffs said they are no longer able to board trains without making a reservation and that having to do so is a burden on them.

For others, the lack of staff may have proven fatal. In December, a woman with a visual disability was struck and killed by a train on the tracks at Tsukumi Station in Oita Prefecture.

While the station is not completely unmanned, the accident occurred at a time when no staff were on-site. The case led to questions about the safety of unsupervised stations.

In a bid to improve service in stations without staff, JR Kyushu has turned to introducing camera and intercom systems. And although the firm can also dispatch employees to help if needed, they need to be contacted in advance.

Elsewhere in the country, some operators are working to avoid empty stations. JR East has turned to agreements with Japan Post Co. to entrust it with some of its services.

The station building at Emi Station on the Uchibo Line in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, was combined with the post office when it was rebuilt. During business hours on weekdays, its staff handle ticket sales while also fulfilling their usual duties for the post office.

JR East plans to expand the same system to two more stations in Chiba and Tochigi prefectures next year, while the public-private run Shinano Railway in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture is also entering a deal with the post office.

Ryoji Otsuka, a professor of railway management at Edogawa University, said that an “over-emphasis on profitability can lead to a decline in convenience and functionality as a public transport service.”

Railways need to take the initiative to resolve the issue including by allowing convenience store and tourism association workers to fulfill roles at stations, he said.

He also proposed different companies look to create systems at transfer stations where staff can be shared.

Photo taken on Aug. 14, 2023, shows passengers at Ozai Station, which has been unmanned since July, in Oita. (Kyodo)

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